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Searching for Systematic Reviews: Managing References

This guide brings together information and guidance on effective searching for journal articles and grey literature for those undertaking a systematic review.

Managing your references

Many systematic reviewers choose to use reference management/bibliographic software to manage the references that they retrieve from the different databases. There are many different programmes that you can use, each with strengths and weaknesses.

NHS staff who are alumni of King's College London will have alumni access to RefWorks (if you are an alumni student email for details of how to access Refworks). 

Other programmes which you may hear of include Mendeley, Zotero, EndNote Web, CiteULike and Papers for the Mac. Many of these are free (although you may be asked to pay for some advanced features).

The King's Guide to Referencing has a short quiz you can take to get a suggested piece of referencing software:

Key features for systematic reviewers:

  • Deduplication - you are very likely to retrieve the same articles from different databases that you search. A paper in the journal Nature, for example is likely to be included in Medline, Embase and others. It is very useful to be able to use the remove duplicates feature so that you only have to sift through each result once.
  • Ability to add full text and store PDFs (or at least link to it) for the articles which are included after the initial sift.
  • Ability to share the references/export them to Excel, for example, if you are going to have multiple people sifting through the results.
  • Ability to edit the reference in some way/group in folders if you wish to record your decisions about inclusion/exclusion of papers.
  • Works with Word (or your chosen word processor) to quickly format citations in the reference style of your choosing when you are writing up.

Covidence and RevMan

When reading systematic reviews you may see mention of two tools commonly used by Cochrane systematic reviewers and others: Covidence and RevMan. If you are undertaking a systematic review you may have them recommended to you by a supervisor or colleague. Whilst King's does not have an institutional subscription to these tools at this stage there are free trial versions available to download and some departments/divisions or research groups may have purchased access independently.

  • Covidence is one of Cochrane’s recommended tools to support Cochrane Reviewers in some of the most labour-intensive stages of their systematic review. Covidence allows a team to upload search results, screen abstracts and full text, complete data collection, conduct risk of bias assessment, resolve disagreements and export data into RevMan or Excel. It is compatible with bibliographic software such as EndNote.
  • RevMan 5 is the software used for preparing and maintaining Cochrane Reviews. RevMan facilitates preparation of protocols and full reviews, including text, characteristics of studies, comparison tables, and study data. It can perform meta-analysis of the data entered, and present the results graphically.

Please note that many systematic reviews (particularly ones which are smaller scale than the standard Cochrane ones) are successfully completed without using these tools and there are also other products available. If you would like to explore a free tool you may find the following to be of interest (please note we cannot offer support on using this system):